Rekkids: Elvis Costello & the Attractions, “The Ultimate Gangster”

Written by Music

I currently have 1,884 albums on my 160GB iPod. I will listen to them all, in no particular order, and write about them.

Punch the Clock is an album often dismissed by die-hard Elvis Costello fans, and I’m not completely sure why.

But that’s a conversation for another day. In 1983, EC was touring behind the record, bringing a combo on the road that included the Attractions at its core (Steve Nieve, king of the keyboard jungle; Pete Thomas, the Empire State of stick; Bruce Thomas, the future of the four-string) but added to the mix the TKO Horns, all former members of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. (Appropriate, since the producers of Punch the Clock, Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley, had just a year before produced Too-Rye-Ay for Dexy’s, including the smash hit “Come On, Eileen”). On some dates, the backing singers featured on Punch the Clock, a duo known as Afrodiziak, also joined the band.

The Ultimate Gangster (expanding upon the old bootleg The Gangster is Back) documents an entire concert from the Punch the Clock tour’s stop at the University of Texas in Austin. The entire show was broadcast on FM radio; as such, there’s an added level of excitement in the air, and you can hear the band and Elvis laying it all on the line with every track. It is righteous and awesome.

Costello has always been a musical chameleon; in his earliest shows, he wasn’t afraid to trot out a subdued Bacharach/David cover amid the punk posturing, and his 1981 release Almost Blue brought him to Nashville to record a straight-up country record. The Ultimate Gangster finds him in full-on soul revue mode, lathering horn parts onto not just tracks from his then-current record but on classics and obscurities from his back catalog.

As you might expect, songs from his Stax homage Get Happy!! are featured prominently; hearing a full horn section blare out Steve Nieve’s organ hook from “Possession” is just one of the first and best “holy shit” moments the concert offers. There’s a one-two medley of the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” and EC’s own “King Horse” that will leave you in a puddle on the floor. By the time the encore rolls up and the horns anchor a relentless, driving runthru of “Pump It Up,” I’m practically on my feet, even if I’m in the car, even if I’m driving it. I wish for time travel technology solely to travel to 1983 and attend this concert.

There’s no dearth of early Costello shows on the bootleg circuit, and they tend to follow a pattern–they’re short, tight sets with very little audience interaction and a fairly predictible set list. By this point in his career, Costello had found a more comfortable place onstage; as a result, this is a genuinely fun show, with Costello warmly engaging the crowd as he puts the band through their paces. He’s more open, more expressive and emotional, and as a result, it’s not the confrontational mood of his 1977 concerts. It’s a old-time revival with the audience as the eager converts.

Some music fans have the bootleg gene; others don’t. Ever since I first found a strange-looking CD release deep in the stacks at my local college indie record store with a $29.95 pricetag and a label I’d never heard of, I’ve been a bootleg junkie. I love the thrill of discovering the rare moments of magic that happen when great artists get together to perform their music before an audience.

If you never download another illicit show again in your entire God-forsaken life, find this show and listen. It’s a phenomenal creative talent at the top of his form with a kickin’ tight band, delivering moment after moment of pure rock-soul bliss.